March 28, 2004

In Defense of 'The Passion of the Christ'

I finally got around to seeing The Passion of the Christ. Simply put, I think the movie is a masterpiece, excellent in both its message and presentation. After seeing the film, I can now say that I completely disagree with every criticism that I’ve heard lodged against it.

Before looking at these criticisms and explaining why I think they’re wrong, I need to lay out what I believe to be an important principle we should use when critiquing movies: We should evaluate movies according to their intentions. For example, we shouldn’t condemn a drama for not being funny, for its intention was never to be funny. Conversely, we shouldn’t condemn a slapstick comedy for not having a serious message, because it never intended to have one. So, when judging The Passion of the Christ, we must be careful to only judge it by the standards that it intends to be judged by.

So what are the intentions of The Passion of the Christ? In creating this movie, Mel Gibson’s goal was to take a detailed, realistic, and spiritually informed look at one of the most important series of events in human history: the arrest, trial, beating, and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. As Gibson says, “I want to show the humanity of Christ as well as the divine aspect. It's a rendering that for me is very realistic and as close as possible to what I perceive the truth to be.” With this in mind, let’s now look at some of the criticisms that have been made of the movie.

Criticism #1: The film is too violent. Those who know a thing or two about history know that the Roman world was a violent culture and that crucifixion was an unspeakably barbaric form of execution. Given these facts, it follows that The Passion of the Christ portrays Jesus’ torture and crucifixion very realistically. Therefore, one who criticizes the film for being too violent is criticizing the film for doing the very thing that it intends to do. If such critics don’t want to watch a movie that gives a realistic portrayal of Jesus’ torture and death, that’s their prerogative, but it’s not fair to criticize the movie for these reasons.

Criticism #2: The film has a weak plot. Some critics complain that the story is too narrow, only focusing on the Passion and failing to give us enough flashbacks of Jesus’ ministry. But let’s remember, this is The PASSION of the Christ, not The Galilean Ministry of Jesus, not The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Again, we shouldn’t criticize a movie for not doing what it never intended to do. Furthermore, given its infinite importance, I don’t see how a film that spends a mere two hours focusing on Christ’s Passion can be too narrow.

Criticism #3: The film assumes a certain background knowledge from viewers. Some complain that those unfamiliar with the Gospels will have trouble following certain parts of the movie. But why is it the film’s fault that certain viewers didn’t pay attention during Sunday school? And what’s wrong with a film making assumptions in the first place? Many films that are universally praised assume that their viewers have certain background knowledge. For example, The Hours assumes that readers know something about Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway, but I don’t remember many critics denouncing the movie for making these assumptions. And by the way, I actually don’ t think that much background knowledge is essential for understanding the gist of The Passion. Even viewers who don’t know much about the Gospels shouldn’t have trouble grasping the general outline and most fundamental parts of the story.

Criticism #4: The film lacks character development.
Some complain that we don’t get to know many of the story’s secondary characters very well. But this criticism, too, is invalid. This is not The Life of Simon Peter or The Mary Magdalene Story; this is (do I need to say it again?) The Passion of THE CHRIST. Others complain that Jim Caviezel struggles to bring Jesus to life, that he’s often wooden and unrealistic. I don’t have much to say about these critics other than I wonder if they saw the same film that I did; I think Caviezel gives a superb, heartfelt performance.

In summary, we should judge a movie according to how well it accomplishes that which it intends to accomplish. And Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ does a remarkable job achieving all of its goals, giving us a realistic and spiritually profound portrayal of the last hours of Jesus’ life.

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